Responding to critical events in an evolving global setting

Responding to critical events in an evolving global settingJonathan Rossing2003-11-018The Centrefalse

by Jonathan Rossing

The unique educational environments of college and university communities do not exist in a vacuum; rather current events, both national and international, affect college students and the learning environment significantly, and they challenge faculty, staff, and administrators to ensure that students receive the maximum knowledge and growth from the event. Writing about student and professional reactions to the United States invasion of Afghanistan, Boyle (2001) stated:

We began to do what institutions of higher learning are supposed to do. We began to teach and learn from each other. But teaching and learning in the midst of a national crisis is different than teaching and learning in normal times. (pp. 9–10)

In times of war, national debate, and global change, college and university professionals must carefully consider the student learning that occurs. Beginning with a brief history of education during crises and continuing with essential considerations during times of turmoil, this article addresses necessary education considerations at times of crisis.

A history of activism and education

Higher education institutions have an extensive record of involvement with important historical events; likewise, student activism has influenced academic settings and society through the years. Chickering (1998) writes that activism most often stems from two conditions: "experienced or perceived social injustice or provocative local decisions or events" (p. 2). Indeed, several student responses and protests in the past 40 years resulted from such stimuli. Students countered the staunch opposition to the integration of higher education institutions in the South, despite being met with water hoses and police dogs. Others staged sit-ins, teach-ins, and other nonviolent protests in response to civil rights injustices (Olivas, 1990). In the late 1960s and 1970s, anti-war rallies pervaded college campuses including the infamous Kent State University protests. More recently, students, faculty, and administrators responded to the developments in the Middle East in 1991, and the following year, the Los Angeles riots captured the attention of many students and educational institutions.

Presently, student reactions and institutional responses may not resemble protests from the second half of the 20th century, but educators still report intense student interest in education about the roots, consequences, and ramifications of current events and issues of national or global importance (Boyle, 2001). A recent study reported that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks increased students' desire to include world events in their personal education and understanding (Lange, 2002). Sixty-six percent of the students in the study reported a significant increase in their desire to discuss and explore world issues. Likewise, an annual freshman survey indicated an increase in the number of students for whom following politics is a vital part of their education (Rooney, 2003).

Student rallies and protests in the past year verify these findings. As the war in Iraq drew closer, the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition organized a nationwide campaign—"Books not Bombs"—that inspired thousands of students to walk out of classes in protest (Young, 2003), and more than 10,000 students marched in Washington, D.C., last year to demonstrate against the upcoming war (Morgan, 2002). Students also gathered in the U.S. capital in April, rallying in support of affirmative action and the University of Michigan's admission policies, and championing the need for diverse student populations that enhance learning environments.

Considerations for institutional responses

Today's students carefully mind the continual flux in our national and global landscapes, but what should higher education professionals consider when significant events such as war, terrorism, or social debates capture the attention of our students? The most important concerns, which link to every academic mission statement, are the educational outcomes and the levels of student learning that result from any major event. Students have a desire to keep abreast of important events in the world—they have a thirst for knowledge and education—and higher education professionals must ensure that students satisfy these needs (Morgan, 2002). Chickering (1998) describes several important outcomes from student unrest and activism: "increased sensitivity to social problems, motivation to address these problems, sophistication about effective strategies, and clarity about one's own values" (p. 2). Additionally, college students seek to establish and clarify their personal identity, and their experiences and reactions during significant events help them in this discovery process (Chickering, 1998; Morgan, 2002).

To achieve satisfactorily the educational goals, institutional professionals cannot remain silent nor can they ignore or silence student voices. Boyle (2001) warns that self-censorship among faculty, staff, and administrators is a real possibility in times when the public or students may have decreased tolerance for controversial or uncomfortable opinions, but "silence serves no one's interests" (p. 13). In the interest of learning, students must encounter a wide range of opinions on difficult issues. Although arguments may ensue, these dialogues form an integral part of the learning process; faculty and staff members must not hesitate to break the silence that harrowing events or controversies often impose.

Similarly, higher education institutions must help students find their voice. College professionals have an obligation to nurture the diverse voices and perspectives on every campus and to maintain a climate of respect (Loeb, 2003). Professionals must ensure that students feel comfortable and free to speak out on pressing issues (Boyle, 2001). Dismissing student activism as an annoyance or disruption may aggravate the issues, and such responses ignore the developmental and educational needs of the students. "Democracy requires disagreement" (Loeb, 2003); therefore, student affairs administrators and faculty must honor and encourage opposing views, thereby setting the tone for a respectful, civil, and secure campus environment. Furthermore, students need safe spaces and appropriate forums in which to reflect on the ever-changing world and to express comfortably the spectrum of emotions that accompany events such as the recent war or terrorist attacks (Loeb, 2003).

Effective education in times of crisis or emotional intensity also necessitates careful communication. Chickering (1998) called for "immediate communication and interaction [and] full, accurate, and pertinent information" (p. 3) at times when a situation provokes student interest and concern. The communication must be meaningful, direct, and frequent, particularly with a crisis as complex and emotionally inciting as Sept. 11 or a war declaration (Wilkinson, 2002). Yet, communication between administrators and students alone will not suffice; academic collaboration is a vital factor in responding to crises (Wilkinson, 2002). Faculty, staff, and administrators must become partners as they respond to difficult events, present information and unique perspectives, and serve the community of learners.

Recent responses to the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, institutions of higher education continue to respond to pressing current events and evolving student needs and concerns. In the framework of the essential considerations for institutional responses—enhanced educational outcomes, promotion of student and professional voices, and thorough communication—the following section details recent programs that exemplify good practice in times of crisis or debate.

Educational programming

Many institutions throughout the United States sponsored panels and lectures focused on Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq. At East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania (ESU), a student organized a faculty panel including professors of political science, history, geography, and communication. Christopher Bello, assistant director of student activities at ESU, said: "The program served to bring to light different views on the subject matter and allow students the opportunity to express their opinions and listen to the opinions of others in an organized and civilized manner" (personal communication, May 2003). Indiana University's Union Board launched a brown-bag luncheon series titled "Perspectives on War," which included five topic sessions with faculty experts. These sessions, designed for small groups of students, promoted direct interaction between students and faculty, and they allowed faculty members to address participants' specific concerns and questions. A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the University of Utah organized an interfaith panel discussion that explored how people from various religious backgrounds could respect and celebrate each other's perspectives.

Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC) in Colorado Springs, Colo., developed educational programs that responded directly to the unique needs of its community. "A Campus Conversation about Iraq" featured panelists from sociology, English, philosophy, developmental writing, business, and literature who presented their positions on the looming war and responded to questions from students and a political science faculty member. This program then went "on tour" through the three-campus system so that all students could learn from these perspectives. Because several military installations surround the area, PPCC also presented a program on "Coping with Deployment: Issues and Emotions" to educate the campus community on how to identify and manage the stress of war-time deployment. The program spurred the development of support groups at two campuses.

Student voices and activism

In efforts to help students find their voice and express themselves, several institutions established "graffiti walls" in or near their college unions. When the war in Iraq began last spring, the University of Georgia (UGA) hung 7-foot sheets of banner paper in the Tate Student Center; the open forum space filled repeatedly with comments, quotes, and artwork. Patricia Daugherty, director of student activities at UGA, described "a reverent feeling where the banners were hanging," calling the comments and artwork "thoughtful and passionate … both for and against the war" (personal communication, May 2003). The banners have since been archived as a part of student life history at UGA. Students at California Polytechnic State University–San Luis Obispo and Louisiana State University organized similar walls for expression. These interactive efforts provided a safe space for student expression, especially for individuals who might otherwise not attend lectures, panels, or programs. Furthermore, the graffiti walls allowed students to comfortably communicate opposing or controversial perspectives. Dave Edwards, director of the Cal Poly University Union, said: "It was better to have students express their thoughts … any thoughts … even those that might be considered offensive … than to keep those thoughts bottled up and have them presented in a more threatening manner later" (personal communication, May 2003).

The University of Utah and California State University–Northridge provided alternative outlets for creative self-expression. Utah's weeklong commemoration of Sept. 11—"Beyond Tolerance"—included an open microphone, "speak out event." Additionally, students had the opportunity to write or draw on pieces of fabric that would be woven together to form a large quilt in memory of Sept. 11. At Cal State–Northridge, the Union Program Council organized a Sept. 11 remembrance week that included a "Craft Corner" for students to express themselves artistically through art projects. These unique programming efforts allowed students to express themselves freely and safely.

Students at Colorado State University expressed views both in support of and opposition to the war in Iraq. During a "Die In" demonstration, students quietly gathered in a free speech plaza, laid down in the shape of a peace sign, and outlined their bodies with chalk in protest against the war in Iraq. When war broke out, a student group maintained a 24-hour-a-day/seven-day-a-week vigil and rotating fast until the end of the war. Likewise, another student organization sponsored rallies in support of the troops featuring speakers, presentation of the colors, and patriotic music.

Effective communication strategies

With war in Iraq approaching and the effects of Sept. 11 still evident, Syracuse University formed the Critical Incident Management Team "responsible for the preparation for, response to, and recovery from critical incidents that impact Syracuse University" (personal communication with Michelle Jachim, May 29, 2003). This team considered who should oversee communication with both on- and off-campus constituencies as well as what training the university should offer to staff members or new employees among other constituents to help them respond effectively to crisis. Many other institutions developed similar committees and teams, underscoring the importance of direct, accurate, and timely information in times of crisis or conflict.

The University Student Union, Inc. (USU) at Cal State–Northridge implemented a passive educational program during the war in Iraq, which was an efficient communication practice. Every USU paycheck (staff and students) contained an information slip with details on counseling services and suggestions for respecting each other and caring for the community. This approach provided critical information to every member of the USU community and allowed each person to utilize the information as appropriate and as needed.

Military efforts in the Middle East. The threat of terrorism. Heated debates on affirmative action or gay marriage. Current events will continue to captivate students and provide educators with the opportunity to enhance student learning, help students discover their identity and voice, and model respect, civility, and effective communication. Higher education professionals would do a disservice to students in the learning community if they ignored these events or disregarded student interest. Therefore, through innovative, collaborative, and need-specific responses such as those described, educators will take steps toward positive learning outcomes and self-discovery.

Boyle, K. (2001). A national crisis and the role of the academy. Thought and Action, 17(2), 9–16.

Chickering, A. R. (1998). Why we should encourage student activism. About Campus, 2(6), 2–3.

Lange, N. (2002). How did Sept. 11 affect students? About Campus, 7(2), 21–24.

Loeb, P. R. (2003). The war on campus: What to do? Retrieved April 24, 2003 from

Morgan, R. (2002, November 8). Tens of thousands of students gather in Washington to oppose war against Iraq. The Chronicle of Higher Education. A37.

Olivas, M. A. (1990). Snapshots from three decades: The law and higher education. Change, 22(2), 64–69.

Rooney, M. (2003, January 31). Freshmen show rising political awareness and changing social values [Electronic version]. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved April 6, 2003 from

Wilkinson, C. K. (2002). September 11, 2001. New Directions for Student Services, 2002(99), 87–96.

Young, J. R. (2003, March 14). Thousands of students walk out of classes to protest possible war. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A35.

Updated Nov. 9, 2012